"The possibilities are endless," said Katy Orr-Dove, a retail market manager for a family farm near Martinsburg, W.Va. "West Virginia is known for being mountainous farmlands. And there are a lot of people who have small farms already."
Increasingly, the possibilities for those small farms include cashing in on a trend in agricultural tourism that has led to some positive early results in the Mountain State. Farm-to-table and locavore movements combine with efforts by farmers to diversify with farm stands, pumpkin and berry patches, barn dances, zip-lines, corn mazes, hay rides and weddings to breathe new life into rural economies that have been struggling for generations.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 174 farms in West Virginia generated approximately $1.2 million in revenue from agricultural tourism, in 2012. West Virginia University's Extension Service plans a study this fall to take a closer look at the effect this movement will have on tax revenue, jobs and income.
Judging by the successes in places such as Bloomery Plantation Distillery, also in the Eastern Panhandle, the results of that study should be encouraging to other farm owners who hope to gain as much as possible from the land they love. And while part of the early success has been seen on the tourism front, another important aspect to consider is the effort to sell homegrown products outside the region.
At Bloomery Plantation Distillery, the change has been remarkable. A year ago, nearly all of its sales were onsite. Now, proprietors expect the shift to offsite sales to continue, at it has already reached approximately 20 percent.
"We're maxed out here," said Rob Losey. "All the growth will be in external markets."
While farm owners must be cautious about jumping into trends that might not be a good fit for their own land, they should certainly listen to reports from the Extension Service and Appalachian Regional Commission, in addition to seeking advice from those who are enjoying their own success stories. Diversification through attracting tourists or increasing offsite sales might be just the boost some of our farms need.